I often receive inquiries from prospective clients who have been told to “go to Family Court and work out custody and support and then get your divorce,” or if a couple is not married they are advised to “just go to Family Court.” When I speak with people like this, they envision the Court system to be something like going through the drive through. First you stop at one window and order, you pull up, receive your resolution, and then drive away. If it was only that simple!
Family Court is a court of law and like any other legal proceeding you could be involved in (i.e, criminal, personal injury), there are rules and procedures that apply.
To begin with, a Petition is filed which lets the Court know what you are seeking. It is provided to the other side so that she has the right to defend herself. There will be an initial appearance where the parties inform the Court as to their position. Depending on the type of case (for example custody or support), there may be an exchange of information that occurs. In a support case, that would be an exchange of financial information, in a custody case it could be documents, videos, e-mails, texts, etc., The Court can also require a family to meet with a forensic psychologist for that professional’s opinion.
Eventually, a matter is settled or there is a trial. Under the Court timeframe, a trial should begin within six months of the initial appearance. Depending on the case, a trial can take many days, and they generally do not occur in a row. Once all the proof has been put in, the judge is supposed to render a decision in sixty days.
If you have been doing the math, it is possible for a Family Court case to take a year or more to bring to a final resolution. Now, that is usually not the case and the vast majority of cases are settled within a more reasonable timeframe. However, unless two people agree on everything, it will not be one stop shopping.
There are ways to make even the most contentious case proceed more quickly:
1. Respond to requests for information promptly. The longer you delay, the longer the entire process takes.
2. Are there things you can agree upon? Even if it is as simple as dates (marriage, birth, separation), that makes a trial move along more quickly.
3. If you are going to be divorced, handle the custody and support as part of your divorce case.
4. Be realistic. If you have been advised that the result you want to reach is most likely not attainable, assess how you should proceed.
March 2019 Margaret Tabak